BOSTON — Jayson Tatum boomed on LeBron James in last year’s NBA playoffs. You may remember it. Tatum, the 21-year-old swingman for the Boston Celtics, certainly does.
The dunk drew a “wow” from play-by-play broadcaster Mike Breen. A reporter wrote on Twitter that in the locker room afterward, he overheard James saying that Tatum had “boomed” him, before James repeated four times, “He’s so good.”
“I’ve got a big-ass picture of it in my house,” Tatum said in a post-practice interview Tuesday.
The dunk came in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference finals. Starting from outside the 3-point line, Tatum took two dribbles with his left hand to get to the rim before hammering a right-handed dunk past James, who attempted a block as a helpless defender. Tatum followed the booming with a chest bump of James, one of his boyhood idols, as if to say, “I’m here.”
— NBA (@NBA) May 28, 2018
The Celtics lost that game, but the dunk solidified Tatum, who played one season at Duke, as an emerging NBA star.
After the Celtics’ disappointing regular-season run this season, Tatum’s star hasn’t been as bright so far in these playoffs as Boston faces the Indiana Pacers in the first round. He did not make the leap many thought he would: While he improved as a rebounder and passer, his shot selection led to more long 2-pointers, causing his true shooting percentage to dip from .586 in his rookie campaign to .547 this year, placing him below .560, the league average.
He increased his frequency of midrange jumpers but decreased his accuracy in making them: 37%, down from 44%. Many of his advanced metric statistics, including win shares per 48 minutes, value over replacement player and box plus/minus, were worse this year.
Tatum finds himself in an unusual spot, compared with fellow NBA sophomores like Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons. The better Tatum plays, especially in this postseason, the more likely he is to be linked to trade rumors, particularly those involving Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans’ star who has requested a trade that could shift the competitive balance in the NBA.
Several college starters in this year’s NCAA Final Four were older than Tatum. But if he cannot live up to the hype he created in last year’s playoffs — that is, if he becomes just another forward — the Pelicans may be more likely to accept a package from the Los Angeles Lakers or another team besides Boston. At the same time, if Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving opts for free agency this summer, the future of the franchise may rest on Tatum’s shoulders. At barely 21, he’d be the alpha.
Tatum’s future is more uncertain than many other players who have received significant early acclaim. But one way or another, the Celtics need Tatum to be great. Not just for this year’s playoffs but for the future.
In short, they need him to boom.
In a conversation at the Celtics’ practice facility about his future and the atypical stakes, Tatum had talking points at the ready, ones that he had delivered multiple times before. He stared straight ahead, not making eye contact, as if he were running through the script in his head.
“Trade rumors don’t bother me,” he said in his deep monotone. “They’re talking about trading me for guys like Anthony Davis. So, I mean, I must be doing something pretty well.” When pressed on whether this bothered him, he didn’t budge: “I love the game of basketball. Being traded is part of the game. I’ll play for whomever. It’s something I can’t control.”
He didn’t have much more to say than that. But that is Tatum’s personality, Brad Stevens, the Celtics’ head coach, said. No distractions. That, Stevens said, is his best quality.
“Circumstances don’t affect him,” Stevens said. “First game of the season, he’s unaffected by the jitters that everybody has. Seventh game of a playoff series? Unaffected. At least, he shows himself to be unaffected, and he can thrive in that environment.”
Stevens said Tatum’s quality of play improved as he got deeper into the season. He became a better passer, averaging 2.8 assists after the All-Star break, compared with 1.9 before. But his shooting dipped, from 38% from deep before the break to 35% afterward.
Last season, Tatum benefited from the low expectations for the Celtics after injuries to Irving, forward Gordon Hayward and reserve center Daniel Theis. But he also helped carry Boston to within one win of an unlikely NBA finals appearance. This year, “unlikely” is not in the playoff vocabulary. The Celtics are supposed to get there. And Boston’s fans, never the most positive bunch, can turn on a player in a second. If the Celtics do not advance, after many analysts predicted they would, fans may view Tatum’s season in a harsh light, given how much of the franchise’s fortunes are tied up with him.
Tatum said he was not as nervous about the playoffs this time around. Taking a daily pregame nap with his 16-month-old son has helped. The early returns have been positive: In the first game of the series against the Pacers, Tatum scored 15 points on 11 shots. He was plus-11 in 34 minutes as the Celtics ran away with a win. In Game 2, Tatum was even better. He scored 26 points on 20 shots, including multiple thunderous dunks in the fourth quarter, helping Boston take a 2-0 lead in the series with a 99-91 victory.
But there hasn’t been a highlight that has matched the dunk on James. Tatum shook his head no when asked if he had ever talked to James about that play. A hint of a grin betrayed his practiced demeanor.
“They won so they got the last laugh,” Tatum said.